Gov. Pawlenty is generally regarded as the most viable candidate of the bunch, and some have questioned whether it's wise for him to engage in a debate in which other top campaigns have declined to participate. Pawlenty has dismissed the "it's too early" argument, countering that he hopes it isn't too late to start the process of defeating Barack Obama. "It's time," he says. Naturally, supporters of the other four candidates dispute the implicit second-tier status the media has bestowed upon their preferred campaigns. Another interesting story-line is the presence of two libertarian-leaning candidates in the debating field, Paul and Johson. Forty percent of the candidates on stage tonight will oppose the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libyan wars, the marriage amendment, the Patriot Act, and the border fence. Johnson is also a vocal advocate of drug legalization and abortion rights. These positions could make for some interesting fodder -- although some of their supporters are worried that splitting the libertarian vote between Paul and Johnson significantly cuts either man's (already slim) chance of capturing the nomination.
At dinner in Greenville last night, I spoke with a handful locals, all of whom happened to be Republicans (go figure). None of them were especially excited about any of the likely candidates in the 2012 field -- including tonight's participants and the others. Though there was unanimous ambivalence about the current field, each of my fellow diners spoke highly of possible candidates who are not expected to run. Among the names mentioned: Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Allen West, and Gov. Chris Christie. Donald Trump's name was met with laughter.
There was also universal agreement that whomever emerges as the GOP candidate, he or she must be electable. I sensed that the overriding priority for these voters is to see President Obama defeated next year -- who does so is, at this point, immaterial.
Based on this very limited and anecdotal evidence -- which, in fairness, reflects the views of many Republicans I've spoken with across the country -- I'd say that all the GOP campaigns have a real opportunity to distinguish themselves tonight, and throughout the primary process. There is no clear front-runner. People are hungry to beat Obama, and their minds are open.
The debate airs at 9pm ET on Fox News Channel. I'm here, of course, and will be live tweeting the debate. Even if you aren't a Twitter user, you can follow my coverage and analysis HERE (@guypbenson). I'll also post a summary of my thoughts late tonight or tomorrow morning.
Take a deep breath...tonight marks the start of the long marathon to November 2012.
UPDATE: Here's Tim Pawlenty's take on why tonight's debate matters:
After two and a half years of Barack Obama’s presidency, nearly onein five American workers are consistently unable to find fullemployment, our national debt continues to skyrocket, and inflatingenergy and food prices are eating away at families’ budgets.
We can do better. But first we need a new president — which is why tonight’s Republican debate is so important.
UPDATE: I snapped a few photos down here. Here's the backside of Fox's Special Report, live from the debate:
And here's the media room, filling up with us media-types in anticipation of the start of the debate: